Britain pledged Tuesday to reform a peculiar legal power that lets judges order the arrest of visiting politicians and generals — a threat currently focused on Israeli visitors that, one day, might be invoked against Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin.
Lawyers working with Palestinian activists in recent years have sought the arrest of senior Israeli civilian and military figures under terms of "universal jurisdiction." This ill-defined legal concept empowers judges to issue arrest warrants for visiting officials accused of war crimes in a foreign conflict.
Their latest target is Tzipi Livni, Israel's former foreign minister and current opposition leader, who staunchly defends Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip. Israel's government confirmed Tuesday that she canceled a planned London trip this month after her office received news of a secretly issued arrest warrant awaiting her arrival.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband later announced that Britain would no longer tolerate legal harassment of Israeli officials in this fashion.
Speaking after meeting Israel's London ambassador Tuesday night, Miliband said the British law permitting judges to issue arrest warrants against foreign dignitaries "without any prior knowledge or advice by a prosecutor" must be reviewed and reformed.
Miliband said the British government was determined that arrest threats against visitors of Livni's stature would not happen again.
"Israel is a strategic partner and a close friend of the United Kingdom. We are determined to protect and develop these ties," Miliband said. "Israeli leaders — like leaders from other countries — must be able to visit and have a proper dialogue with the British government."
Previously, British judges in private have accepted petitions from anti-Israeli activists to arrest Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli army generals when they set foot in England. Barak successfully argued he enjoyed diplomatic immunity as a serving government leader, while several other Israelis have made U-turns for home when informed of the warrants.
Legal experts in England and Israel say "universal jurisdiction" could be abused endlessly to harass, if not effectively incarcerate, any high-profile visitor who oversaw a military or anti-terrorist operation.
"Why not use this against Vladimir Putin over Russia's role in Chechnya? There is no end to it," said Yehuda Blum, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, who teaches law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "The abuse and misuse of this concept of universal jurisdiction should be discontinued."
Experts said the legal concept would face decisive scrutiny if, instead of targeting Israelis, a judge's arrest warrant targeted a past or current American or European head of state.
Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Center at Oxford University in England, said the demands of global diplomacy required leaders to be able to travel abroad without facing arrest threats.
He noted that American officials had refrained from taking part in International Criminal Court proceedings in The Hague, Netherlands, in fear that they might face arrest threats themselves.
"Pressures in the long run will weigh against this kind of use of international law because it will inhibit political actions," Rogan said.
Sonya Sceats, an international law expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the Livni arrest threat throws into bold relief how much ambiguity exists in Britain's laws on universal jurisdiction.
"This area of law is still quite unsettled," she said, noting it might even be invoked against current government leaders despite their presumed state of diplomatic immunity.
Spain and Britain jointly pioneered the universal jurisdiction concept when, in 1998, Britain executed a Spanish arrest warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. British authorities kept Pinochet under house arrest in London until releasing him on humanitarian grounds in 2000.
Other leaders targeted
Pro-Palestinian activists in Britain long have hoped to capture Israeli officials in the same net that once held Pinochet.
"We cannot talk tough on terrorism and be weak on war crimes," said Chris Doyle, director of a lobbying group called the Council for Arab-British Understanding.
"Parties in Israel must realize there is a consequence to their behavior. For decades they've violated Security Council resolutions and international law with little or no consequence," Doyle said.
Livni, a one-time lead negotiator in Israeli diplomacy with Palestinian leaders, enjoys a dovish reputation in much of the West despite her support for invading Gaza to stop rocket fire by Hamas militants.
"I would make the same decisions all over again," Livni said in a speech Tuesday.